Welcome to lib.reviews! We're building a free, open and not-for-profit platform for reviewing absolutely anything, in any language.

Show more 

2018-4-30Smoothing Sign In and Sign Up
2018-4-16lib.reviews on Mastodon
2018-4-9We now synchronize labels from OpenStreetMap

Teams are groups of like-minded people reviewing things of common interest. Here are a few examples:

AnticapitalistsVeg(etari)anSushi Society

4 stars
Better than expected  ja

Going to the doctor in Japan can be quite daunting. Not just because of the language barrier, but because doctors here have an infamous reputation for being rude and callous. Not so in this clinic, where the service was really good, and some information was available in English.

I had to wait over an hour, but if you got some time, I would recommend visiting this one when you need it. It’s also conveniently located in front of Nishidai station, so that’s another plus.

4 stars
When Britain went to war to sell drugs

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age is an attempt by American historian Stephen Platt to explain the causes of the First Opium War (1839-1842) between the United Kingdom and China under the Qing dynasty, and to contextualize it in the history of the declining Celestial Empire.

Platt is a gifted storyteller, and the book puts significant focus on individual actors. It begins with the story of British merchant James Flint’s ill-fated 1759 expedition to change the conditions under which British traders operated; it ends with the protagonists of the First Opium War, such as Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, Chinese anti-drug official Lin Zexu, and William Jardine, one of the leading opium smugglers.

Platt also tells us about some of the domestic threats the Chinese empire was facing during this era: on land, the White Lotus Rebellion that combined political grievances with religious fanaticism; at sea, a formidable united pirate fleet known as the “Red Flag Fleet”, commanded by a female leader, Ching Shih. The Qing dynasty’s ineffective response to these threats is symptomatic of the “imperial twilight” of the book’s title.

Stacking room at an opium factory in Patna, India (1850). (Credit: W. S. Sherwill. Public domain.)

Wars for drugs

The foreign opium trade itself had its roots mainly in India, where the East India Company controlled much of its production. Platt explains how the explosion of production and trade turned a luxury drug into a major national health problem for China and drained the domestic economy of silver that was used to pay drug dealers.

After largely unsuccessful efforts to police Chinese traders and users (and a tantalizing flirtation with the idea of legalization), the empire appointed an official named Lin Zexu to a position we might today call a drug czar. Lin cracked down on the the foreign traders who brought opium into the country; he blockaded their ships, seized their opium, and ordered the destruction of more than 1,000 tons of it.

Although no British subjects where physically hurt in this confrontation, the destruction of property—even property whose sale was very much illegal in China—provided a casus belli for the First Opium War, leading to the first of the unequal treaties between China and European powers (and soon, to the Second Opium War).

If you ever wondered why Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997: it was one of the spoils of Britain’s drug wars. These wars forced China to accept the opium trade, and cleared the path to respectability for those who sold the drug. Today, Jardine Matheson, which was originally built on the opium trade, is a $39.5B conglomerate.

Agency and empire

Platt’s central thesis is that the war could have been averted if just a small number of individuals had acted differently: there was significant opposition to the opium trade within Britain; many traders were perfectly happy to play by China’s rules; Lin Zexu overplayed his hand against the British; his British complement, trade superintendent Charles Elliot, made an absurd promise to compensate the opium smugglers that forced the hand of the British government.

It’s a fine hypothesis, but I don’t buy it. The British Empire’s political structure was designed to find accommodations between power factions, with 86% of adult men and 100% of adult women disenfranchised. The legal and illegal traders who wanted to force an opening of China (with preferential treatment for Britain) were an increasingly powerful faction. Britain was aware of China’s inability to defend its coastline.

Sooner or later, a similar combination of means, motive and opportunity would have led to a similar criminal undertaking. This is not an argument against culpability or agency of individuals. But I believe Platt’s view of China is a lot more realistic than his view of the politics of the British Empire.

The verdict

Platt’s book spends almost no time writing about the First Opium War itself, which was, after all, a war in which around 20,000 people—mainly Chinese—were killed or wounded. He says the bare minimum about the Second Opium War, about the concessions China was forced to make to Western powers, about the consequences for ordinary Chinese people.

Nonetheless, this is an insightful, well-researched and highly captivating book. I especially appreciated the author’s efforts to convey the frequent cultural misunderstandings between British and Chinese diplomats and politicians, which heavily contributed to the failure to find common ground peacefully. The book also contains many beautiful black-and-white illustrations and helpful maps.

Stephen Platt’s book is a piece to the puzzle of a history that seems especially important today. China is re-emerging as a superpower—perhaps the superpower—while nationalist rhetoric is back in fashion in Western democracies. If you’re looking for a definitive or systematic history of the Opium Wars, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a book that will draw you into the world of the traders and smugglers, scholars and fools in which those wars took place, I recommend Imperial Twilight unreservedly.

4 stars
What mind has wrought

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is a man often credited with a lot of things: with discovering or “unlocking” the unconscious mind; with exposing a prudish and trepidatious society to the power of sexuality; with boldly and creatively speculating about the meaning of dreams, the neuronal basis of behavior, the origins of religion, the drive towards self-destruction.

That view of Freud is one which is conveniently separated from his life and, more often than not, from his work and writings as well. Biographies of Freud have often been written by adherents of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, and access to important letters and writings has been tightly controlled by his descendants and followers over many decades.

Frederick Crews, a professor emeritus of English in Berkeley, initially applied Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to literary criticism. Becoming disillusioned with its shaky foundations—and especially with the risks of psychoanalysis as a form of therapy—he then made it his mission to document who exactly Freud was and what he did.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion (2017) is the culmination of this project (some would say obsession) that started in the 1970s. At 746 pages (666 pages before the notes start), this is a hefty tome. It is organized chronologically, but this is not so much a biography but a re-assessment of Freud’s life from his student years to the early years of the psychoanalytic movement.

Past as prologue

Reduced to a few salient points, the book argues that Freud is guilty of harming his patients, of promoting quackery, of completely misrepresenting his case studies and persistently covering up the lack of any actual cures, of producing his wildest theories under the influence of cocaine (and then pretending they were the result of careful observations), of projecting his own sexual fantasies and frustrations upon his patients, of creating a self-serving cult that applied its beliefs in therapeutic practice without adhering to foundational ethical principles like primum non nocere, secundum cavere, tertium sanare (first, do no harm; second, be careful; third, heal).

Some of the most destructive aftershocks of Freudian thinking, Crews argues, could be felt as late as the 1980s, when “therapists” extracted false confessions of satanic ritual abuse from hundreds of children, producing a moral panic that tore apart families and even resulted in prison sentences which had to later be revoked. The underlying idea—that memories of traumatic events are repressed and can only be recovered by a skillful therapist—was one Freud himself believed in (and attempted to apply to patients) early in his career.

From 1912 to 1927, a Secret Committee with Freud at its center was tasked with defending Freud’s beliefs against dissenters and with protecting the central dogmas of psychoanalysis. Its members were gifted signet rings. (Credit: Israel Museum. Fair use.)

In Crews’ retelling, Freud starts his therapeutic career being absolutely convinced of one important truth: cocaine can cure anything. He used it over many years, he advocated for it, he prescribed it. For Freud, cocaine seemed to be the ticket to achieving wealth and fame, a miracle medicine whose countless potential applications had been overlooked.

Freud’s cocaine advocacy is an important example of his frequent total disregard for scientific principles and methods. Crews documents how Freud’s cocaine publications dramatically misrepresented his actual experience with the drug, much of which was the ultimately disastrous attempt to cure his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow of morphine addiction using cocaine.

Blaming the victims

Freud would be an incredulous proponent of pseudoscientific and non-scientific ideas throughout his life. After his death, Freud’s followers carefully curated which letters and unpublished writings were permitted to be seen by researchers who were not part of the inner circle. This was very effective, and the public perception of Freud today is still shaped by the censorship actions taken by Freud’s true believers.

Freud’s correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess was held back into the 1980s due to the potential for embarrassing the master. Fliess, whose pseudoscientific idea of “biorhythms” still has some currency in the present, was also an advocate of nasogenital reflex theory, the idea that sexual problems are linked to the nose. I would say that you can’t make this stuff up, but evidently you can.

Freud blamed Emma Eckstein’s “hysteria” on masturbation. He recommended a quack surgery based on the belief that the nose is linked to the genitals. The botched operation almost killed Eckstein and left her disfigured. (Public domain, circa 1890.)

Freud considered Fliess “the Kepler of biology”. He embraced his friend’s most bizarre numerological speculations; nasogenital reflex theory had the additional benefit of connecting well with Freud’s own speculations about the alleged sexual origins of countless diseases. He referred a female patient, Emma Eckstein, whose “hysteria” he attributed to masturbation, to Fliess for a nasal surgery.

A near-fatal botched operation left Eckstein disfigured and suffering from frequent bleeding. In what was a common pattern, Freud blamed the victim: Eckstein’s bleeding was itself a “hysterical” symptom, a psychosomatic reflection of her inner wishes.

But when it comes to victim-blaming, that case does not hold a candle to Freud’s treatment of “Dora, a young girl who was repeatedly sexually harassed by a friend of her family, starting at the age of 14. Her family did not take Dora’s word for it, however, and asked Freud to treat Dora’s “hysteria”. Freud happily complied with the parents’ wishes, and repeatedly attempted to pressure Dora into admitting that she secretly wanted the sexual relationship, after all.

Ice water

The reference to masturbation in the Eckstein case was not unusual but typical. As Crews puts it (p. 642f.):

As we have seen, Freud regarded masturbation—either its continuing practice or its abrupt and traumatic abandonment—as the precipitating agent of most neuroses. Through the first decade of the twentieth century, his relentless grilling of patients was chiefly focused on uncovering their histories in that regard. Albert Hirst recalled that when he entered treatment with Freud at age sixteen, the therapist immediately required him to sit “in the position in which I masturbated.” Other patients were enjoined not to masturbate for the duration of their care, lest a “current neurosis” be triggered.

But in most cases willpower alone, Freud believed, was insufficient to keep the hand from straying downward. In two 1910 letters, one to Ludwig Binswanger and the other to the Swiss psychiatrist Alphonse Maeder, he recommended that a masturbation-addicted male patient be subjected to treatment with a “psychrophore”—a catheterlike device for inserting ice water into the urethra. If Freud’s name were to invoke the image of a psychrophore instead of a couch or a cigar, we would be spared much needless discourse about his sponsorship of erotic freedom.

Far from being a trailblazer for future sexual revolutions, Freud held on to his reactionary views, even as scientists started to debunk the 19th century myths of “self-abuse”. Those ideas may seem funny today, but they were used to inflict untold psychological and physical harm in the form of more or less dangerous “cures”.

Powerful stories

It’s a common belief that Freud’s findings about what makes humans tick were real, but were primarily a reflection of a wealthy Viennese clientele who collected neuroses the way other people collect stamps or paintings. While some of Freud’s patients could be described that way, Crews makes it clear that the foundational ideas of psychoanalysis—such as the Oedipus complex—were not derived from real cases, but from Freud’s fondness for uninhibited speculation.

One of the big questions for me about Freud’s ideas has always been why people chose to give them any credence in the first place. Psychoanalysis in particular was never science, and Freud was neither as capable nor as meticulous as many other scientists of his era. Crews offers an answer which I find compelling: Freud was a brilliant storyteller.

Freud’s case stories were written like novels, and the psychoanalyst is the protagonist who cleverly deduces the truth from a few subtle clues. Never mind the fact that some of these stories were so utterly implausible that they are almost certainly complete fabrications—and others were, as we know from other evidence, heavily fictionalized or effectively retconned by Freud to bring them in line with his own frequently revised speculations.

Crews compares Freud to Arthur Conan Doyle, and Freud endowed himself with Holmes-like powers in many of his tales. These stories helped to cultivate the modern image of Sigmund Freud: wry, wise, witty and worldly.

Freud’s speculations about dreams, his invocations of mythological figures, his organizing of our lives into stages and drives, all of this speaks powerfully to our passion for story. Does it matter if much or all of it is bunk? It does to the extent that it hurts people, and to the extent that we want to call any of it science or medicine.

The verdict

Freud: The Making of an Illusion is still a necessary book, because psychoanalysis is still an influential idea, for the same reasons it became influential to begin with. Its defenders have simultaneously attempted to put distance between themselves and Freud, while also falsely crediting him for ideas that did not originate with him (see the Crews/Orbach dialogue in The Guardian, for example).

This is also a flawed book. Crews holds Freud in contempt, and in his effort to recast history, he often strays from facts to speculation. Did Freud have an abusive relationship with a sibling as a child? Did he fancy his own mother? Was he under the influence of cocaine when he wrote some essay or paper?

The book could be 150 pages shorter and more persuasive without the most speculative portions. This is not to say that Crews is sloppy; factual claims are generally very well-supported. Crews also always makes it clear when he’s theorizing. I had the impression that the 86-year-old author wanted to use what may be his last major work to tell us everything there is to know about Freud—including all of Crews’ own speculations and pet theories.

The tendency of the author to take these speculative detours works against the book in another important way: it gives Crews’ detractors plenty of ammunition to paint him as an obsessed curmudgeon with an axe to grind. I give the book 3.5 out of 5 stars mainly for this reason, rounded up to 4 because I’m quite certain that Freud: The Making of an Illusion takes us, at least, in the direction of a more realistic assessment of Sigmund Freud.

5 stars
Outstanding quality, commitment to repairability and a great price

This light is one of the rare products that seriously impresses me. The build quality is excellent with a metal case. The light is held together using hex screws and is designed to be opened by the user. Serfas sells replacement parts for the lights such as handle bar mounts and replacement batteries. The light is seriously bright and lights up the whole road perfectly. I absolutely recommend getting this light. Its the last one you will ever need to buy.

1 star
Quite bright and easy to attatch but seems to have serious quality control issues.

A friend and I both purchased these lights from different sources. They worked fine for a while but after a few months of use we both had them fail. For me the rear light still works fine but the front light fails to hold a charge. A few days of sitting unused will cause them to drop from fully charged to empty. My friend had similar issues with them not turning on anymore. Would avoid this brand in the future.

4 stars
Well priced and minimal but lacking in documentation

The GnuBee is a network attached storage device supporting up to 6 sata drives and runs linux with full user control given. I ordered one and it arrived fairly quick considering it was shipped from far away. Assembly is really simple. You just have to attach the side plates to the pcb. When I ordered I couldn’t work out what the USB UART cable was for and did not get one. I later found out that this cable is super important for installing an OS on the GnuBee. I sourced a cable from ebay which worked but this prevented me from using the device for a month.

I found the documentation available online to be really lacking and it took a lot of investigating to work out how to get something running on the device but there is a fairly active community on the mailing list which was a huge help. Once I got debian installed and working I was able to use the familiar linux tools to set everything up to my liking. I wanted to run a speed test on the device but I wasn’t able to find a fair way to do it. I network mounted the device via SSH and I was getting 4MB/s over the local network but multiple posts online have pointed out that SSH is inefficient for large data transfers. I was not able to find a faster way to network mount that maintained the security of SSH.

Overall I think the hardware is designed right and once you get it installed and set up its really quite easy to manage. Actually getting it to that point took a while but this can all be fixed later via documentation improvements.

3 stars
Very comfortable and good sound quality but constructed with weak plastic that broke after a few months

Sound quality is really quite nice and better than the others I tested at the same price point. Its not quite as good as the Bose ones I tried but those were quite a bit more expensive. The padded ear parts are super comfortable and I feel fine wearing it all day at work.

I was really quite liking these but then after a few months usage I saw that the plastic had cracked. After some inspection I noticed this was a design flaw, the underside of this plastic part is hollowed out to make room for the cable and this has resulted in a really weak spot. It should be fairly easy to fix with some glue but its a little disappointing to see such a flaw

photo of damage (Own work. License: CC-BY-SA.)

5 stars
FOSS, Extensible web browser

Fennec is a build of Firefox’s source available through f droid. This allows installing Firefox without having to use the google play store.

Fennec comes with most, if not all, the features of Firefox. The F Droid page says " It’s focused on removing any proprietary bits found in official Mozilla’s builds." I haven’t noticed any missing features though. You can add extensions like u block origin.

Speed seems on par with other browsers.

5 stars
Full featured local location backend

Deja Vu stores the locations of wifi APs and cell towers on your phone. This allows for greater accuracy than using gps alone and allows you to do it without pinging google may times a day like stock android phones with location services turned on do.

This app requires MicroG’s UnifiedNlp to work which requires a ROM with signature spoofing enabled. The easiest way to get this is to use a custom ROM like Lineage with Microg or use NanoDroid with a custom ROM.

Important app for retaining functionality while degoogling your android phone.

5 stars
Little 60s/70s style bijou outside of Paris mainstream

This small restaurant in Paris’ 20th arrondissement is not exactly at a tourist hotspot – which is probably what adds to its charm. The restaurant is lovingly decorated in a vintage 60s/70s style and you really feel like you are sitting in a friends’ living room. A friend with a somewhat eccentric taste, that is, but blessed with amazing cooking skills.

We had a very, very nice dinner at Chez Elle, with wonderful French cuisine at a very fair price (the full menu is 13.50 EUR), and will definitely come here again on our next stay in Paris. It is well worth the metro trip up to Télégraphe station!

 Older reviews